Interview: Running and reading fit into a life of travel

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It is clear from the way Paul Brooks talks that he enjoys running. The chief financial officer of Experian, the FTSE-100 global information services company, is buzzing with enthusiasm for every subject from the growth of the data and analytics business to the life of Lloyd George, the former British prime minister.

“I like to run,” he says, “because it’s a great way to unwind, keep fit and you can do it anywhere. I do a lot of marathons. I’m also a keen football fan and support Crystal Palace. And I read avidly.”

Based in Nottingham, with a second home in southern California and enough international travel to indulge a love of political and historical biographies and learning more about that “fascinating character, Lloyd George”, Paul Brooks has neatly wrapped his life around his career, and vice-versa.

Experian, which he joined in 1999, was created in 1996 when the British conglomerate, GUS, combined the former TRW Information Systems & Services with the CCN Group.

It spent the next decade growing fast, both organically and through acquisitions and was demerged from GUS and listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2006. Since then it has expanded into many geographic and vertical markets and today supports clients in almost every significant industry in 40 countries, employing more than 15,000 people.

On joining, Mr Brooks became finance director at the former international division. He says: “I enjoy the commercial side of the role. Although I’ve done technical financial roles as well, I do enjoy adding value to the business, solving problems and dealing with the difficult issues as part of a team and the strategic decision-making process.

“How good or bad you are is pretty evident and you have the satisfaction of determining your success as reflected in the share price.”

By his own measure, it has been a successful time. The company’s informative website reveals this to be a business that pays close attention to its remit – placing women in senior management and among its non-executives; giving regular updates on new markets such as India; and discovering more potential acquisitions. The share price reflects all that.

Experian’s corporate headquarters are in Dublin, with operational headquarters in Nottingham, Costa Mesa, California and São Paulo, Brazil. “I travel a lot – between a quarter and a half of my time is spent in international travel. About 20 per cent of our revenue is in the UK, but the biggest portion is the US, followed by Brazil. And Asia is a key investment,” says Mr Brooks.

The company helps its institutional clients use data to make decisions but a big chunk of its business is also selling consumers access to their own credit data. While this has been very successful in the US, the UK market is still only about five years old, gaining traction from growing fears of identity theft.

Talent management across the company has been a major objective in the past five years as a plc, and it is an aspect of his role of which Mr Brooks is particularly proud. “My leadership team of regional finance officers and controllers have five meetings a year over two days in person, and twice a year we spend a half-day or a full day of doing a deep drive on talent. We use organisation charts and talent grids on potential and performance and go through succession charts, making sure people are being developed, and are internationally mobile,” he explains.

Mr Brooks is a man with the numbers at his fingertips. Experian employs between 700-800 people in finance. Among these, in its last fiscal year there were 125 internal moves, 68 promotions, 39 lateral moves and 10 secondments – and 18 of the moves were across geographical regions.

“We are pre-disposed to people who are willing to move around as we believe that for a global company it’s very important to keep up the movement,” says Mr Brooks.

“About five years ago we had to replace two people who were direct reports and for that we had to go outside the company and it was a very fraught process. As a result, although we started at the higher levels, we have now spiralled down to manage talent in this way throughout the company,” he adds.

When looking for the right people to recruit to the finance function, he says: “I look for commitment and drive to achieve results. Teamwork is very important, as is a good analytical background and commercial awareness.”

It was commercial awareness and interest that led him to leave KPMG for a career in business soon after qualifying as a chartered accountant.

With an economics degree from Cambridge, he says he “drifted into accountancy” like many of his generation now in their 50s. “We didn’t give a lot of thought in those days about what we were going to do next, but I was always keen to be in business in some form or another,” he says.

Before leaving KPMG he did have an opportunity to go to Dubai, which he found valuable – and which sparked a love for travel.

He joined ICI, the chemical giant now part of AkzoNobel, the Dutch conglomerate, and then moved into a variety of businesses, from GKN, the engineering company, to Inchcape, the automotive services business. “One of the benefits of being a finance professional is that you can switch industries fairly easily.”

Of his career he says: “It’s very important to choose a company with good growth prospects and one that is keen to develop you further.”

And always on the move, he spent the early part of this year training for the London Marathon, raising money for the Nottingham Bereavement Trust along the way.

●My big break?

Joining the ICI plastics division in a commercial role and getting moved to Brussels as a junior member of a small team. This gave me an opportunity to learn rapidly and become part of the senior team.

●People who made a difference?

First, John Harvey-Jones, CEO at ICI, who had tremendous charisma and was also down to earth, very open and good at making tough decisions. And second, Sir George Turnbull at Inchcape who was the essence of a leader. He had a clear strategy for the business and everyone knew it.

●What else might you have been?

A journalist. I love writing and have always been interested in current affairs.

●Best career advice to others?

Choose companies carefully and get as much experience as you can early on in your career.

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